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The duties of career firefighters vary with the size of the fire department and the population of the city in which they are employed. However, each firefighter's individual responsibilities are well defined and clear-cut. In every fire department there are divisions of labor among firefighters. For example, when their department goes into action, firefighters know whether they are to rescue people caught in fires, raise ladders, connect hoses to water hydrants, or attempt to break down doors, windows, or walls with fire axes so that other firefighters can enter the area with water hoses.
Firefighters may fight a fire in a massive building giving off intense heat, or they may be called to extinguish nothing more than a small brush fire or a blazing garbage can. Firefighters on duty at fire stations must be prepared to go on an alarm call at any moment. Time wasted may result in more damage or even loss of life. Firefighters wear protective suits to prevent their hands and bodies from injury, including protective gloves, helmets, boots, coats, and self-contained breathing apparatuses. Because of the mass confusion that occurs at the scene of a fire and the dangerous nature of the work, the firefighters are organized into details and units. They work under the supervision of commanding officers, such as fire captains, battalion chiefs, or the fire chief. These officers may reassign the firefighters' duties at any time, depending on the needs of a particular situation.
Once firefighters have extinguished a fire, they often remain at the site for a certain length of time to make sure that the fire is completely out. Fire investigators or fire marshals may examine the scene to determine the causes of the fire, especially if it resulted in injury or death or may have been set intentionally. They seek clues to the type of fuel or the place where the fire may have started. They may also determine that the fire was the result of arson—that is, it was set deliberately—and they will examine the scene for evidence that will lead them to suspects. These officials may arrest suspected arsonists and testify in court against them.
Firefighters often answer calls requesting emergency medical care, such as help in giving artificial respiration to drowning victims or emergency aid for heart attack victims on public streets. They may also administer emergency medical care. Many fire departments operate emergency medical services. Most firefighters are cross-trained to participate in both fire and emergency activities.
Some firefighters are assigned as fire inspectors. Their work is to prevent fires. They inspect buildings for trash, chemicals, and other materials that could easily ignite; for poor, worn-out, or exposed wiring; for inadequate alarm systems, blocked hallways, or impassable exits; and for other conditions that pose fire hazards. These conditions are usually reported to the owners of the property for correction; if not corrected, the owners could be fined and held criminally liable if any fires occur. Fire inspectors also check to see that public buildings are operated in accordance with fire codes and city ordinances and that the building management complies with safety regulations and fire precautions. Often firefighters are called on to give speeches on fire prevention before school and civic groups.
While firefighters are on station duty and between alarm calls, they perform various duties on a regular basis. They must keep all fire-fighting equipment in first-class condition for immediate use. This includes polishing and lubricating mechanical equipment, keeping water hoses dry and stretched into shape, and keeping their own personal protective gear in good repair. They hold practice drills for improving response times and fire-fighting techniques to become as efficient and proficient as possible.
Many firefighters study while on duty to improve their skills and knowledge of fire fighting and emergency medical techniques. They also prepare themselves for examinations, which are given regularly and which determine to some extent their opportunities for promotion. They are often required to participate in training programs to hone their skills and learn new techniques.
Since many firefighters must live at the fire station for periods of 24 hours at a time, housekeeping duties and cleaning chores are performed by the on-duty firefighters on a rotation basis. In some small towns, firefighters are only employed on a part-time basis. They are on alarm call from their homes, except perhaps for practice drills. Usually in such situations, only a fire chief and assistant live at the station and are employed full time.
Firefighters work in other settings as well. Many industrial plants employ fire marshals who are in charge of fire-prevention and fire-fighting efforts and personnel. At airports, potential or actual airplane crashes bring out crash, fire, and rescue workers who prevent or put out fires and save passengers and crewmembers.
The job of firefighters has become more complicated in recent years due to the use of increasingly sophisticated equipment. In addition, many firefighters have assumed additional responsibilities. For example, firefighters work with emergency medical services providing emergency medical treatment, assisting in the rescue and recovery from natural disasters such as earthquakes and tornadoes, as well as manmade disasters, such as the control and cleanup of oil spills and other hazardous chemical incidents, or rescuing victims of bombings. The work of firefighters is very dangerous. The nature of the work demands training, practice, courage, and teamwork. However, fire fighting is more than a physical activity that requires strength and alertness. It is also a science that demands continual study and learning.